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by Sarah J.F. Braley | October 19, 2017

Sarah J.F. Braley, senior editor, Meetings & ConventionsWhile the practice goes by a number of terms — such as meeting design and meeting architecture — the idea of redesigning events in a more experiential way is being put forward by a number proponents in the industry, including the American Society of Association Executives and Meeting Professionals International. These two meetings giants have begun tinkering with their formats, seating, content and more to engage attendees in new ways and add new life to their events.

Jeffrey Cuffaude, Idea ArchitectsThis is the first of three Q&As conducted by Meetings & Conventions with pioneers in this area. Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects designs and facilitates keynotes, workshops, retreats and conferences, and consults on leadership and organizational development topics. For years, he's been delving into the nature of how adults learn and helping planners and host organizations tailor their events for a more effective outcome — one that satisfies the host's objectives, but also engages the attendees in new and electric ways for better retention.

How do you define the term "meeting design"?
I define it as using an in-depth and empathic understanding of stakeholder needs and aspirations to make informed, intentional choices for every planning detail, as well as broader considerations like flow, sequencing of segments, engagement, etc.

How do you assess the success of the method you are using?
Did it produce the intended results for 1) the attendees, 2) the sponsoring organization, and 3) any partners or collaborators?

How can planners convince stakeholders to try something new?
I would first reframe this to how might planners enable stakeholders to convince themselves of the value of doing something new or different?

Planners can help stakeholders experience this new value in action via real or virtual field trips to events where the ideas are already in play. If that is not possible, stakeholders can read or hear about them in a case-study format.

I believe planners should routinely expose stakeholders to trends and new ideas so that stakeholders bring suggestions to the discussion agenda instead of simply voting thumbs up or down on planners’ ideas. Planners can intentionally structure this process so that it does not get out of control — i.e., "We are only looking for ideas that meet these three criteria …"

Finally, planners would be wise to periodically refresh their understanding of what we know works in terms of influence and change management. Authors like Robert Cialdini (“Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade”) and William Bridges (“Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change”) have effectively addressed these topics in their writings over the years.

How can planners with a small budget approach design change?
Being more intentional in design does not necessarily mean spending more money. In fact, when greater intention is brought to bear on every design choice, planners might realize resources in some areas can be reallocated to others that will produce a greater return. Planners have to know what truly matters most to their stakeholders and invest accordingly.

That said, no one has unlimited resources. Rating all the possibilities in terms of their desirability and doability on a classic 2x2 grid can give a quick sense of the choices to be made.

For highly desirable design decisions with lower doability due to resource constraints, planners could consider the biggest step forward that the available resources would support, instead of merely rejecting those ideas as undoable.

Finally, potential new sponsors, partners or other resources might surface as you bring greater intention to your efforts.

What do you learn from a design failure?
You learn how your assumptions about what would/would not happen played out in real-time, vs. what you envisioned, allowing you to identify refinements you can make in the next iteration of your meeting design — and yes, design is an iterative process.

What are two things planners can do right now to get their meetings on the right track?
Identify a small number of meeting metrics that assess the impact of the event on the beliefs and actual behaviors of those who attend vs. simply measuring if people liked the meeting. We meet to move individuals, organizations and professions forward, but few meetings assess their impact in doing so.

Select a few elements in their meetings that are most ripe for experimentation and then try some stuff to learn what works, as well as make modest changes in any aspect of meeting design where they do not need stakeholder permission — so long as they do so with a design intention driving their choices.

Read part 2 of our series here, and part 3 here.